Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Doing history in public’ Category

Inside the Modernist mind: Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto (2019)

By Sam Young (@Samyoung102

Minnette de Silva was a remarkable individual. Sri Lanka’s first female architect and the first Asian woman to join the Royal Institute of British Architects, she pioneered the development of a ‘Regional Modernism’ style of urban design throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In Plastic Emotions, Shiromi Pinto intimately explores the life of this often forgotten but nonetheless influential figure in architectural history, focusing on de Silva’s struggles in a turbulent post-independence Ceylon and her passionate (if speculative) relationship with famed Swiss-French Modernist Le Corbusier. A heady mix of art and romance, Plastic Emotions has been praised for its gripping portrayal of two fiercely intelligent individuals brought together by a shared belief in the transformative power of architecture, resulting in a story as beautiful as it is desperately sad.

However, in focusing on the romantic element of Pinto’s novel, reviewers have often overlooked its strength as an exploration of the psychology of Modernism itself. Loosely defined as an adherence to ‘functionalism, rationalism, and the elimination of “useless” decoration’, Modernism as an architectural style was grounded in the early twentieth-century belief that society could be revolutionised via the application of technology and rational thought to urban space.[1] Through her deeply introspective narrative, Pinto shows the reader how de Silva and Le Corbusier both allow themselves to be swept up by the utopian mentality of Modernism, placing all their trust in its socially transformative powers. She has Le Corbusier hint at this sense of devotion in an imagined letter to de Silva: ‘We architects must be idealists. We construct not just individual buildings, but whole cities. We plan cities, and in doing so, change lives.’ To Pinto’s characters, Modernism becomes an empowering faith, giving them the intellectual and emotional drive to construct a perfect world.

Yet Plastic Emotions does not simply portray Modernism as a positive, motivational force. By committing themselves wholeheartedly to the Modernist revolution, de Silva and Le Corbusier also become vulnerable to its fragilities. Chief among these is the alluring belief that a single skilled individual can transform the world, regardless of practicalities. De Silva’s dream of developing a ground-breaking architectural form that combines Modernist rationality with the elegance of traditional Sri Lankan design is constantly frustrated by an ugly mix of cultural sexism, sectarian violence and the uninformed whims of her clients. The easily flattered Le Corbusier readily accepts the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to design the brand-new city of Chandigarh, but soon finds his monumental project undermined by bickering colleagues and shoddy local construction methods.

Their grandiose dreams under threat, the Modernists retreat into a kind of snide, elitist bitterness. When a friend warns de Silva about mounting tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils, the architect calmly sips her wine and remarks ‘We’re artists. We stand above such petty arguments.’ Meanwhile Le Corbusier, experiencing delays in the Chandigarh project, angrily dismisses his design team as ‘incompetent, lazy, treacherous wasps.’ Such outbursts demonstrate the weakness of the Modernist mindset: by pursuing wildly utopian goals, Modernists only set themselves up for disappointment. Modernism is thus presented by Pinto as total and all-consuming, providing its devotees with the motivation to achieve great things but also with the inevitable sense of failure that comes from setting one’s sights too high.

This depth of psychological exploration elevates Plastic Emotions above most other historical fiction. Rather than simply placing her story in front of a two-dimensional historical backdrop, Pinto instead gets inside the mentality of the era, mapping out her characters’ thoughts in a way which allows the reader to connect with the lost historical mindset of Modernism. Much like Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (1992) or Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist (2016), Plastic Emotions gets inside the heads of revolutionaries, envisioning how they interacted with a now-vanished ideology on a psychological level. Through this approach, Pinto helps us develop our emotional understanding of figures whose legacies still surround us today, preserved forever in concrete.

References:

[1] MacLeod, ‘Modernism’, 3.

Bari, Shahidha, ‘Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto review – an architectural romance’, Guardian, 20 July 2019 <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/20/plastic-emotions-by-shiromi-pinto-review&gt; [accessed 2 February 2020]

Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 13th edn., trans. by Frederick Etchells (Oxford: Architectural Press, 2001)

McLeod, Mary, ‘Modernism’, Histories of Postwar Architecture 1.1 (2017), 1-10, <10.6092/issn.2611-0075/6726> [accessed 2 February 2020]

Pinto, Shiromi, Plastic Emotions (London: Influx, 2019)

Wallace, Jane, ‘“Plastic Emotions” by Shiromi Pinto’, Asian Review of Books, 6 August 2019 <https://asianreviewofbooks.com/content/plastic-emotions-by-shiromi-pinto&gt; [accessed 9 February 2020]

Image: Photograph of Minette de Silva at the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defense of Peace, 1948. Public domain.

The Climate of History: Protest and Performance at the British Museum

By Alex White (@alex_j_white)

On the 8 February 2020, the British Museum became the site of a mass protest for climate justice. The target was the multinational oil and gas provider BP, a long-term partner of the British Museum and the sponsor of a new flagship exhibition entitled ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’.[1] According to the organisers of the protest, the activist group ‘BP or not BP?’, the company’s sponsorship of historical attractions is a form of ‘culture-washing’ which draws attention from their exploitation of the natural world and their support for authoritarian regimes. At the same time, the exhibition’s showy, uncritical style distracts from more contemporary debates within the museum – such as the status of artefacts acquired through colonial force. This combined critique of donor and recipient is particularly interesting: while the protest is primarily a climate demonstration, it also represents an elaborate and inclusive exercise in public history.

Read more

Irish politics: past, present, future?

By Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn

For the past one hundred years, Irish parliamentary politics has been dominated by two political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. This is now no longer the case. Ireland’s recent general election saw the left wing party Sinn Féin emerge as the third ‘big party’ in Irish politics, gaining more first preference votes than either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael (both centre right).  Witnessing the frustrations of an electorate faced with a housing crisis and overcrowded hospitals during a period of alleged economic recovery, pundits and politicians alike identified a thirst for change. The election has produced a complicated political  landscape, in which no single party has enough seats to form a majority.  Weeks if not months of coalition talks are now likely. And whilst many are more focused on the future than the past, these three parties share a complicated, overlapping history. This shared past may still impact upon their ability to form a government together.

Read more

‘Twittering Historians: On Active Duty in the Rapid Reaction Force’

By Stephanie Brown (@StephEmmaBrown), Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17), and Robert Saunders (@redhistorian)

DHP were invited to speak at the Public and Popular History seminar on 5 February 2020. We sent along our Editor, Stephanie Brown, and member of the editorial team, Laura Flannigan. Also, on the panel was Dr Robert Saunders (Queen Mary London), who is a prolific author on nineteenth and twentieth century British politics, including his acclaimed book Yes to Europe: The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain (2018).

Read more

Wiley Digital Archives: enhancing research capabilities

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

I was recently invited to user-test Wiley Digital Archives’ (WDA) platform which holds digitised archives from various societies including The Royal College of Physicians (RCP), The New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (RGS) and The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (RAI). The WDA platform is a wonderful resource, bringing together numerous collections and enabling cross-referencing across multiple archive collections.

Read more

Suffrage, Arson, and the University of Bristol

By Georgia Oman (@Georgia_Oman)

Founded as University College, Bristol, in 1876, the awarding of a royal charter in 1909 allowed the University of Bristol to officially come in to being. In that time, the institution had earned a reputation as a trailblazer in the higher education of women. During the College’s first year, there were 69 women day students registered, compared to 30 men.[1] In 1882, outgoing Professor J. F. Main declared that Bristol ‘had been the first amongst the colleges of England to open its doors to all persons anxious to obtain instruction within its walls, without any distinction of sex’.[2] With this strong legacy of gender equality, it is perhaps not surprising that, in 1913, the women of the university began to think of forming a Women’s Suffrage Society. At a meeting held on the 11th of February of that year, a motion that such a society be formed was passed by 34 votes to two, and the meeting ended in the hope that ‘this Society will be formed during the present term.’[3]

Read more

Tour de Force: A Selected History of Guided Tours

By Clemency Hinton (@clemencyhinton)

Guided tours are part and parcel of today’s tourism industry. In fact, there are over 1,800 registered professional tour guides in the UK alone.[1] Tour guides (also known as rangers, couriers or interpreters) can be traced through history, leading one scholar to describe guiding as likely to be ‘among the world’s oldest professions.’[2] The World Federation of Tourist Guide Associations defines a ‘Tourist Guide’ as a qualified person who ‘guides visitors in the language of their choice and interprets the cultural and natural heritage of an area.’[3] However, guides have existed long before they became part of a recognised profession.

Read more

Teaching Around Trauma: The Holocaust in Primary School Education

By Alex White (@alex_j_white)

It’s a sunny day in rural England. A football team is practising on the field outside, a group of schoolchildren are queuing for lunch, and I am working as a teaching assistant as a class of nine-year-olds learn about the Holocaust for the first time.

The room is quiet, and I can’t help feeling tense. The teaching of painful histories always carries emotional baggage, forcing educators to balance the need for factual accuracy with the risk of causing lasting trauma. This is particularly true for young children:  their emotional capacities are still developing and many can struggle to separate themselves from traumatic events while others will fail to engage empathetically at all.[1] At the same time, however, the schoolroom has been depicted as a formative space where educators can introduce complex topics in a mediated and emotionally appropriate manner.[2] When schools refuse to teach ‘difficult’ histories, they run the risk of exposing pupils to misinformation from less secure sources. For a topic as emotive as the Holocaust, this can have particularly dangerous consequences.

Read more

Doing History in Public Review of 2019

Editor of DHP Stephanie Brown (@StephEmmaBrown) looks back at 2019.

As it is New Year’s Eve, let’s take one final look at 2019, before the resolutions of 2020 begin. In fact, it was a resolution that kicked off 2019 for DHP. Veganuary saw Greggs launch their vegan sausage roll and they quickly struggled to keep up with demand. Piers Morgan called the bakery ‘PC-ravaged clowns’, however, Zoe Farrell uncovered the long history behind veganism.

Read more

Fashion Gallery as Archive: Researching Dress History in Museums

By Zara Kesterton (@ZaraKesterton)

In recent years, it has become fashionable to talk of an ‘archival turn’ in history, in which the site of record-keeping has itself come under scrutiny.[1] At the same time, material history has risen to prominence as an intriguing counterpart or companion to the paper-trail left by written documents.[2] As someone who became fluent in the visual language of a museum long before I encountered academic history, I like to think of a fashion gallery as something that can be ‘read’ in similar ways to an archive, combining the perspectives of both historiographies.

Read more

Virtual electioneering: echoes of the 1883 Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act

Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

On Thursday, voters across the UK will head to the polls in the third general election in less than five years. This contest suggests numerous historical parallels. It’s the first December election since 1923 – an election which incidentally brought in Britain’s first ever (minority) Labour government under Ramsay MacDonald. Brexit continues to upset traditional party allegiances, leaving both Labour and Tory heartlands vulnerable. And never before has the environmental crisis featured so prominently as an electoral issue.

Read more

Nazi doublethink: Race and nation in Germany’s borderlands

By Luisa Hulsrøj

“The national state . . . must set race in the center of all life,” Hitler declared in Mein Kampf, exemplifying his movement’s exaltation not only of the nation but also of its ostensible basis in race. This pernicious ideology encountered challenges, recent scholarship has found, when it met with populations in East-Central Europe that had difficult-to-distinguish ethnic backgrounds and no, or at least no stable, national identities.[1] Such so-called national indifference is difficult to imagine, for today we take nationality for granted as universal and timeless. Yet nations did not emerge in their modern form as the model for state organization until the 19th century. Even then they had to be actively constructed. Compulsory public schooling, for example, was widely introduced to teach standardized national languages and national history in an attempt to make citizens into members of nations. The course of nationalization did not, however, run smooth. Well into the 20th century national indifference persisted, not just in backwaters like the early Soviet Union’s rural Western frontier but also in some of Europe’s industrialized heartlands, such as Bohemia and Upper Silesia. During the Second World War, Nazi occupation authorities in such areas adopted racist rhetoric. However, acknowledging ethnic ambiguity internally, they also instituted policies designed to recruit the nationally indifferent for the German nation.

Read more

The Archive in Decline: The Emergency of Archival Collections in Italy

By Marina Iní (@MarinaIni_)

During part of the last academic year, I travelled to several archives and libraries collection in the Italian peninsula for my PhD fieldwork. It has been an extremely rewarding experience on the research side, but it was also thought-provoking.  I saw with my own eyes the disheartening situation of different Archivi di Stato (Italian National Archives, usually one per provincial capital), Archivi Storici Comunali (City Archives) and other public archival collections and libraries.

Read more

The Dreyfus Affair: metaphor and reality in public history

By Daniel Adamson (@DEAdamson9)

The Pyrrhic Wars; the crossing of the Rubicon; the witch hunts; the sinking of the Titanic. Modern parlance is littered with examples of historical events that have accrued a metaphorical value superior to the weight of their historical realities. In public spheres, there is more interest in deploying historical events for what they symbolise, rather than what they actually were. The Dreyfus Affair is one such case in point. In 1894, the French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason, having been accused of passing classified documents to the German military. Protracted division and debate subsequently embroiled French society, as competing parties contested the validity of Dreyfus’ conviction. Eventually, in 1906, Dreyfus was exonerated upon retrial and the identification of the true culprit (Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy).

Read more

Anglo-Irish Relations and European Integration: then and now

by Christopher Day (@ChrisDay96)

Since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, the country’s future relationship with the Republic of Ireland has been a key issue. The question of what to do about the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has been crucial in negotiations between the UK and the EU, but (at the time of writing) no answer has been found agreeable by all parties. Given the legacy of British involvement in Ireland, and the continuing desire of Northern Ireland to remain in the UK, this issue is especially pertinent and potentially fractious. But that has not stopped several commentators from positing the troubling suggestion that the Republic could simply leave the EU too, thus avoiding the need to create a hard border on the island of Ireland. This idea is a non-starter; a poll in March 2019 showed that just eight percent of Irish people favoured leaving the EU. Rightly, those who have suggested this ‘solution’ to the issue have been widely castigated. Read more

Dreams of ‘something better’: Exploring childcare alternatives from the First Neighbourhood Co-operative Nursery to ‘My Mum is on Strike.’

By Rosa Campbell @rrrosavalerie

In the late 1970s, parents in Walthamstow, London started the first neighbourhood co-operative nursery which officially opened in 1986 and closed in 1993. To celebrate this, the oral history collective On the Record has put together an exhibition at the Mill, a community centre in Tottenham called ‘Doing it Ourselves.’ Read more

Review: The Museum of the American Revolution

By Evelyn Strope (@develyn_16)

Location: 3rd & Chestnut Streets, Philadelphia, PA, USA, Independence National Historical Park

Ticket Prices: $18 Student, $21 Adult

Opening Hours: Mon–Sun, 10am–5pm

www.amrevmuseum.org; @AmRevMuseum

While undertaking archival research in Philadelphia this summer, I finally had the chance to visit the Museum of the American Revolution (MAR), situated at the heart of the United States’ Independence National Historical Park. The Museum is still relatively new; it opened in 2017 on the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington & Concord – 19 April 1775. Both its modern architecture and its attention to visual experience and to cutting-edge digital history reflect its age. More importantly, those technologies, woven into eye-catching text panels and amongst many extant artefacts, help the MAR to tell a cohesive story within its main exhibit, divided chronologically into four sections: Becoming Revolutionaries (1760–1775), The Darkest Hour (1776–1778), A Revolutionary War (1778–1783), and A New Nation (1783–Present).

Read more

A historian of youth politics stands with the school climate strikers

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

We are halfway through the week-long Global Climate Strike. Last Friday, millions of school students and workers around the world took to the streets demanding that governments act now to address the climate and ecological crisis. Back in March 2018, in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, I blogged about the history of children’s strikes for Doing History in Public. Since then, youth strikes have exploded onto the global political arena. In less than a year, Greta Thunberg has gone from protesting alone outside the Swedish parliament to being the figurehead of a global ‘School Strike for Climate’ movement.

Read more

Public History in the Digital Sphere: /r/AskHistorians

By Joe Rachman

What sparked the craze for martial arts, particularly kung fu, in 1970s America? Why did some Serbs commit acts of genocide in the late twentieth century despite Serbs themselves having been victims of genocide during World War Two? What started the Opium Wars? Did Zarathustra, the supposed founder of Zoroastrianism, actually exist? Why are contemporary African states so poor when compared to the legendary wealth of some pre-colonial African empires? All these questions, and more, posed by curious members of the public have recently been answered for free by historians willing to dedicate a little bit of their time to help sate public curiosity about history. Welcome to /r/AskHistorians.

Read more